T-minus eight days until training camp for the Vancouver Canucks. The dog days of summer are almost over and hockey is nearly back in our lives for the first time since the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended back in July. It’s exciting, isn’t it?
First, there will be a rookie camp at Rogers Arena on Sept 16 where star prospects Vasily Podkolzin and Danila Klimovich will try and turn heads. After that, the fun continues on Sept 23 at Abbotsford Centre. Hopefully, the entire team, including Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson are present and accounted for when everyone hits the ice. Training camp will run for three days before preseason action begins in earnest on Sept 26 against the newly minted Seattle Kraken.
Throughout camp and the seven-game preseason, which will feature rivals like the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, and Winnipeg Jets, rookies and veterans alike will be battling for spots on the Canucks’ opening night roster. If you have watched this team in the past, you know that general manager Jim Benning and head coach Travis Green don’t take into account contracts, age, or seniority when determining if a player deserves a spot in the lineup. Just ask Sven Baertschi, Nikolay Goldobin and Sam Gagner. They were all surprised by the likes of Tyler Motte and Adam Gaudette who performed better in training camp and the preseason and eventually won a spot over them.
One of these battles will take place on the fourth line. Assuming there are no injuries in training camp, two of the three spots will already be filled by incumbents Tyler Motte and Brandon Sutter. So the question will be, who joins them as the third amigo? The winner will get the coveted roster spot on opening night while the runner-up will get to sit in the press box as the extra forward. This battle will be fierce as at least five players have a legitimate chance of winning it all. So without further ado, let’s get the festivities going with the introductions of the five combatants.
Zack MacEwen has shown well in training camp and the preseason before. When everything was normal back in 2019 (aka pre-pandemic), he starred on a third line with Adam Gaudette and Sven Baertschi and looked really good. He scored a goal against the Arizona Coyotes after a great no-look pass by Gaudette and was a physical force throughout as well.
MacEwen has played 55 games since then, including a career-high 34 last season. He also has scored six goals and nine points in those games. Considering his experience and overall fourth-line skillset of being physical and hard to play against, he should have the inside track for this job going into training camp.
Matthew Highmore was acquired in the trade that sent Gaudette to the Chicago Blackhawks last season. He definitely has more speed and offensive upside than a lot of the players on this list, but he is not a physical presence and won’t deter opponents from taking liberties on the Canucks’ stars.
Having said that, Highmore would make the fourth line more of a threat offensively. After a slow start with the team, he finished the season with an impressive three goals in five games. He also was a scoring star in the QMJHL with the Saint John Sea Dogs where he accumulated 90 goals and 247 points in 289 games. On a line with a former 20-goal scorer in Sutter and a former college producer in Motte, we might see this line score more often than not.
Another big and physical specimen, Jonah Gadjovich absolutely tore up the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Utica Comets last season. He was a menace in front of the net at both 5-on-5 and the power play and ended up scoring a career-high 15 goals and 18 points in 19 games. If the season had continued, he probably would have put up 30 or more goals. That’s how insane his pace was.
Gadjovich did get to play in his first NHL game on May 16 against the Flames, but only played 4:55 after getting into his first fight against fellow rookie Connor Mackey after he threw a dangerous hit on Highmore. Even though his NHL debut was short-lived, he showed off an important aspect of his game, a willingness to stand up for his teammates. If he continues to do that consistently, he will quickly become a favourite of not only the coaching staff but the fans too. He also has upside as a net-front presence of which the Canucks have not seen since the days of Ryan Kesler and Todd Bertuzzi.
I’ve said it before, and I am going to say it again. Will Lockwood is a Jannik Hansen clone. Tell me if this sounds familiar, hard-working, fast, relentless on the forecheck, great at penalty killing. That’s Hansen and Lockwood in a nutshell. Hansen carved out an NHL career as a solid bottom-six player who could jump into the top-six at a moment’s notice. Before he rode shotgun with Henrik and Daniel Sedin towards the end of his career, he was often the Swiss Army knife for the Canucks. I see a similar trajectory for Lockwood.
Hansen played 626 games in the NHL and recorded 109 goals and 256 points, so Lockwood’s got a long way to go. He could be a perfect fit with Motte and Sutter this season though. His speed and forechecking abilities, not to mention his sneaky offensive talent, could make them one of the league’s most effective trios. Speed kills, and he has a lot of it. I could see him potting a consistent 10-15 goals in his prime, maybe even more, depending on the linemates he gets. Who knows? He might even do it this season with Sutter and Motte.
Phil Di Giuseppe
The final player in this battle is Phil Di Giuseppe, formally of the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes. Joining Lockwood in the dark horse category, he could surprise everyone and be this year’s Motte. He already has 201 games of NHL experience, a history of physicality (462 career hits), and has shown flashes of offence too. To me, that sounds like a forward that should be strongly considered for the fourth line.
Di Giuseppe hasn’t scored more than one goal since the 2017-18 season, but that doesn’t mean he can’t rediscover that side of his game at one point. Don’t forget, he was a second-round pick at one point. Sutter is also not a black hole like Beagle, so maybe playing with a center that has more skill will re-ignite his offence. Even if he doesn’t score, he still has a playing style that is perfect for the fourth line.
Winner: William Lockwood
Similar to Motte back in 2018, I have a strange feeling Lockwood is going to impress the coaching staff enough during the preseason to force himself onto the opening night roster. I know I put MacEwen on the fourth line in my recent forward lines projections piece, but I really think Lockwood is going to prove me wrong and wind up playing against the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 13.
Lockwood went into the offseason knowing what the NHL game looked like and will come into camp raring to go. His speed and high-octane motor stood out during his two games in the NHL last season and will only continue this year in the preseason. Expect to hear his name often in the coming days and weeks.
Runner-Up: Zack MacEwen
It was a photo finish, but MacEwen edges out Gadjovich for the extra forward spot. Highmore was also there too, but I see Green making sure he has at least one physical forward he can call upon for games against bigger teams. In the end, expect to see a rotating door of wingers alongside the duo of Sutter and Motte. It will all depend on who the Canucks are facing whether we see a finesse forward or a big, physical one.
The fourth line will feature the biggest battle going into training camp this season. The bout between Olli Juolevi and Jack Rathbone for the sixth defence spot will also be one to watch. It will be interesting to see who plays with Bo Horvat too. Lots of stuff to talk about as we get closer and closer to puck drop against the Kraken on Sept 26.
The Hockey Writers will keep you up to date with wall-to-wall coverage of training camp and the preseason, starting with rookie camp on Sept 16.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.